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School District Wireless Network Models

This brief discusses six models that school districts have deployed to create out-of-school or off-campus Wi-Fi networks to serve students in their communities. Many of the districts featured in this brief had already begun planning projects to address the digital divide prior to the pandemic. As a result, they were positioned to scale up pilot projects or apply emergency federal funding to accelerate implementation.

The six models presented in this brief are compelling solutions that districts of various sizes, in various geographic locations have deployed to serve their students. Each example describes real-life challenges in educational networking, illustrates best practices, and provides advice to school and district leaders on how to tackle the challenges of providing home access to students. Each example includes a description of the approach and technology used, funding and partnerships, challenges and successes, outcomes and impacts, next steps, and implementation advice.1

The six models highlighted below include: 

  1. ACPS@Home, Albemarle County Public Schools, Albemarle, VA
  2. Northeast Nebraska Tribal Education Broadband Service, Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC), Northeast NE
  3. ICOE BorderLink Infrastructure Initiative, Imperial County Office of Education, Imperial County, CA
  4. LUSD Community Wi-Fi Network, Lindsay Unified School District, Lindsay, CA
  5. Livewire ConnectME Program, Boulder Valley School District, Boulder, CO
  6. Connect2Learn Initiative, Fresno Unified School District, Fresno, CA

Model 1: Leasing 2.5 GHz Spectrum to Connect Students at Home

Albemarle County, VA

Program Name: ACPS@Home initiative

Location: Albemarle County, VA

Project Lead: Dr. Christine Diggs, Chief Technology Officer

The Albemarle County Public School district (ACPS) serves more than 14,000 students and is comprised of 26 rural, urban, and suburban school buildings surrounding the city of Charlottesville, VA. More than 30 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged or participates in the Free or Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) program, and approximately 10 percent identify as English learners. Given this diverse learning population, the district views digital equity as a critical component for meeting the learning needs of all students.

The ACPS vision for student learning is, “All learners believe in their power to embrace learning, to excel, and to own their future.”

Approach

Leverage partnerships and available 2.5 GHz spectrum to provide internet connectivity to students.

In 2019, ACPS established the ACPS@Home initiative to double-down on its commitment to provide internet connectivity to students at home. Through the ACPS@Home initiative, the district issues mobile hotspots to students, partners with local government to expand broadband throughout the county, and serves as the financial sponsor for providing broadband service to students in areas where it is available from the partner ISP. The district has also established a dedicated digital equity position within its technology department.


ACPS@Home initiative

  • Student Population: 14,345
  • Demographics:
    • White 63%
    • Hispanic/Latino 14%
    • Black/African American 11%
    • Asian 5%
    • Other 7%
  • Economically Disadvantaged/FRPL: 33%
  • Location: urban, rural, and suburban
  • Area covered by network: 726 mi2
  • Cost to construct: Approx. $500,000
  • Cost of project staff: None
  • Cost per square mile: $689
  • Number of students served: 1,175
  • Populations served by network: Students, and households with and without students

A key component of the ACPS@Home initiative was the creation of a public-private partnership through which ACPS leases its 2.5 GHz spectrum to a commercial ISP. Leasing the district’s EBS spectrum provides essential, sustainable funding for the mobile hotspots issued to students. The public-private partnership includes an agreement with a commercial ISP to provide broadband internet connections through the company’s low-cost internet program. ACPS serves as the financial sponsor to ensure that all economically disadvantaged students living in the ISP service area receive adequate internet access.

The district also forged a key partnership with the county information technology (IT) department. Through this partnership, the county’s connectivity is measured by location through online speed tests, which provide more accurate upload and download speeds than those published by the ISPs.

ACPS also collaborates with the Albemarle Broadband Authority on the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grants they have received from the state of Virginia. A recent VATI grant, which extends broadband service to currently unserved areas in the county, will connect over 200 students’ homes. ACPS supports their efforts to provide open Wi-Fi from community centers and by expanding school Wi-Fi to parking lots for greater accessibility when schools are closed.

Technology Used

Exhibit 1 provides an overview of Albemarle County, VA’s LTE network topography map.
Exhibit 1 provides an overview of Albemarle County, VA’s LTE network topography map.

ACPS’s off-campus wireless network was developed using spectrum that ACPS leases in the 2.5 GHz band which is a spectrum band that can be used to provide high-speed, high-capacity broadband service via cellular wireless communication systems.

ACPS uses commercially available, cellular industry standards-based equipment to provide wireless data services via a private LTE network covering an area exceeding 100 square miles. They utilized existing network infrastructure that was already available to the school district, including facility rooftops, radio towers, and leased and school district-owned fiber-optic (or fiber) for data transport to minimize recurring costs. E-Rate funds were not used to support this initiative.


Fiber is the fastest method of delivering high-speed Internet and can transmit data at faster speeds over longer distances. Fiber consists of a thin cylinder of glass encased in a protective cover that uses light rather than electrical pulses to transmit data. Each strand of the cable can pass a signal in only one direction, so fiber-optic cable must have at least two strands: one for sending data and one for receiving data. Fiber-optic cables are not subject to electrical interference, which greatly increases the transmission distance.

Outcomes and Impact

Having either an off-campus wireless network, or a combination approach to connecting students, has been ACPS’s highest priority for ensuring students have the access they need for 21st century learning and their future success. Although ACPS faced multiple challenges to providing internet access to students, partnerships with local government and other public/private entities have resulted in a positive impact for unconnected students and teachers.

ACPS was well-positioned to quickly accelerate its ACPS@Home project timeline when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Each teacher and high school student who needed internet access and lived in an area with a cell signal was issued a mobile hotspot. Because the district serves a broad geographic area, this approach proved advantageous. If students were not able to receive a signal from one type of mobile hotspot provider, they are switched to a device serviced by another carrier.

When ACPS faced a total school closure during the spring of 2020, many teachers and students found the mobile hotspots valuable for maintaining a feeling of connectedness and community, since they could connect with one another visually, even when speaking via cell phones.

Next Steps

ACPS plans to grow and expand the ACPS@Home initiative, by upgrading the mobile hotspot data plans to unlimited data plans and expanding the initiative to reach up to 90 percent of students. ACPS will continue to partner with the Albemarle Broadband Authority and the county IT department to expand internet connectivity around the county, with a priority emphasis on providing broadband access to students’ homes.

ACPS also plans to conduct a mapping exercise to get detailed information on the home internet connections it provides. It will continue to focus on digital equity related to internet access, computing devices, teacher professional development, support for digital technologies, as well as the intentional delivery of specific software and hardware that ACPS delivers to district-owned student devices.

Implementation Advice from ACPS

  • Consider topography challenges ahead of time because they can impede signal strength. For example, tree density, numerous rolling hills, mountains, and valleys have posed a challenge for delivering access to many of our more rural locations.
  • Ensure financial resources are available to properly staff the project. Be aware of the availability of contract workers in your area that can trench fiber-optic or climb towers for installations. These workers can be in short supply or have limited availability.
  • Be cognizant of local zoning ordinances or possible restrictions on tower height that may impact the number of students you can reasonably serve.
  • Remain cognizant regarding the availability of client equipment for use within households.
  • Clearly define who needs access, and make sure there is a mechanism to acquire accurate data regarding who has no internet access and who has limited internet access—and be able to plot those addresses on a map.
  • Establish a strong Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) before expanding student access to the internet outside of school property.

Model 2: Using New 2.5 GHz Licenses to Bring Low-Cost Wireless Access to Tribal Homes

Northeast Nebraska

Program Name: Northeast Nebraska
Tribal Education Broadband Service (NNTEBS)

Location: Northeast Nebraska

Project Catalyst: Tom Rolfes, Education IT Manager, State Office of the Chief Information Officer

The Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) is working with five public school districts on the Santee and Omaha reservation land to implement a mobile/fixed private LTE wireless network using 2.5 GHz Spectrum. Santee and Omaha are in Knox and Thurston counties in northeast Nebraska.

The new wireless network will serve approximately 2,100 students in grades K–14 across 580 square miles. For many families, this will be their first home internet access. The NNTEBS project aims to improve the college-bound student rate and other positive educational outcomes (e.g., homework completion).

Approach

The Northeast Nebraska Tribal Education Broadband Service (NNTEBS) project leverages public funds to implement a private LTE wireless network carried over the newly licensed 2.5 GHz spectrum for tribal entities. The project plans to use up to 10 new and existing towers or vertical assets on public property, each with fiber-optic backhaul to Network Nebraska, the statewide education network that serves public and private K–12 schools and higher education institutions.


Northeast Nebraska Tribal Education Broadband Service

  • Student Population: 2,078
  • Demographics:
    • American Indian/Alaska Native 57%
    • White 40%
    • Hispanic/Latino 2%
    • Other 1%
  • Economically Disadvantaged/FRPL: 78%
  • Location: rural
  • Area covered by network: 580 mi2
  • Cost to construct: $275,000
    • Equipment: ~$160,000
    • Towers: ~$80,000
    • Installation: ~$35,000
  • Cost of project staff: In-kind, hiring 1.0 FTE
  • Cost per square mile: $474
  • Number of students served: 2,100
  • Populations served by network: Students in grades K-14

In 2018, the Nebraska Department of Education, Nebraska Educational Television, and the State Office of the Chief Information Officer, submitted joint EBS comments to the FCC that outlined a proposal for a regional 2.5 GHz network and evaluated the feasibility and scalability of this approach for meeting the connectivity needs of the region’s students.2 Information provided by the Digital Learning Guidance document co-developed by the Nebraska Department of Education, Educational Service Unit Coordinating Council and Network Nebraska, ensured the selection of the most appropriate wireless technology for quick and affordable deployment.3 The rural topography of the NNTEBS project area consists mostly of rolling hills and is sparsely populated. Less expensive line-of-sight wireless technologies were not found to be scalable due to the large numbers of unserved households and the hilly topography of the region. The goal is to create a ubiquitous wireless network so that students who are transported by bus, who travel for activities between school districts, or who live in another partner school district, will all have access.

Technology Used

Exhibit 2 provides an overview of the Northeast Nebraska LTE topography map.
Northeast Nebraska LTE topography map

Multiple private LTE base stations will be installed on vertical “assets” or towers, extend a wireless coverage area of 360 degrees in all directions, and operate in the 2.5 GHz band. Each base station will be connected via point-to-point wireless to its own high bandwidth internet source, which originates at the school. Each school receives its internet from Network Nebraska. More than 700 sets of customer premises equipment (CPE) will include radios with mid-power and high-power antenna options, as well as 2.5 GHz Mi-Fi hotspots for student households that are in closer range to a base station. The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) handles all of the incoming call transactions from the student devices and will be a cloud-based service until the project grows to the point where an LTE EPC appliance would be more cost effective on the core network. Fiber-optic circuits for each school district and NICC base station were upgraded to provide 500 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps capacity. In two locations, fixed base point-to-point wireless transport was needed to reach a water tower or community high point to provide line-of-sight connectivity.

Funding and Partnerships

The NNTEBS project was funded in part by the federal postsecondary Title III, Part A Strengthening Institutions program, the Bureau of Indian Education Fund, an American Indian Higher Education Consortium grant, CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding (ESSER), and local school districts. The project is considering additional grant sources to grow and improve the wireless network.

The primary objective of the project was to connect the unserved and underserved students in the project area. To achieve this objective, several formal and informal partnerships were formed:

  • The superintendents from the five public school districts of Bancroft-Rosalie, Pender, Santee, Umonhon Nation, Walthill, and the President of the Nebraska Indian Community College signed agreements to define their project responsibilities.
  • A contractual relationship was formed between NICC, as the primary fiscal entity, and Red Rover, LTD, as project integrator.
  • Baicells Technologies was selected as the equipment manufacturer (e.g., LTE CPEs, unlicensed LTEs, indoor/outdoor base stations).
  • The Nebraska Department of Education, Nebraska Educational Television, and the State Office of the CIO provided in-kind support and connections to outside experts.
  • As the statewide E-Rate applicant, the State Office of the CIO developed cost allocations based on the proportion of internet access that was to be shared to student homes.

Challenges and Successes

  • Installation Labor. The biggest challenge on the project was the installation of the student household CPE. The project owners had neither the staffing nor expertise to go door-to-door to install exterior or interior equipment. A search for an installer revealed that all wireless and tower installers were busy with other local, regional, or national implementations tied to FCC, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), or state funding. Eventually, the project owners found a wireless installer from Missouri to train local volunteers and oversee the installations.
  • Aggressive Timeline. Another major challenge was the project timeline. It is unusual to move a major project from concept to completion in less than 6 months. The NICC President’s leadership and the partnerships developed with the school districts were critical to the project’s success. As a result, the stakeholders stayed focused on the objective: to get students connected to the internet as quickly as possible.

Outcomes and Impact

The NNTEBS project area has some of the highest student poverty rates and one of the highest frequencies of underserved and unserved internet households in the state. Because of the great need, state agencies and technology integrators have been quick to support the project and the tribal governments, tribal college, and the associated public-school districts have been willing collaborators.

NNTEBS project success will be tracked using four key metrics:

  1. The number of student households connected annually.
  2. The consistency of the wireless connection bandwidth and reliability for end-users.
  3. The number of wireless sessions per student device per academic term.
  4. The academic progress per newly connected student as a result of the enhanced internet access.

Next Steps

NNTEBS completed the equipment installations and pushed to connect almost every Mi-Fi student by the start of the 2020 school year, September 1, 2020. Several student households that required antenna installations were not connected until October 2020. Next steps include re-involving a school district that dropped from the project and reaching out to The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, which is interested in developing an LTE wireless network for Little Priest Tribal College and two public school districts on adjacent tribal lands.

Implementation Advice from NNTEBS

  • Determine which students do not have internet service at home using questionnaires, follow-up phone calls, and student information system data.
  • Map student addresses or geocodes and draw concentric rings on the map at 1-mile radii from the network base station(s).
  • Decide which wireless technologies should be implemented.
  • Estimate the upfront and ongoing costs of constructing and operating the network.
  • Calculate and marshal the financial and human resources to sustain the network.
  • Research local, state, or Federal policies or statutes that could impede the project. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a searchable tool for identifying broadband legislation for many states.4
  • Take a day or two and visit a location where a similarly situated network has been operating with similar equipment and ask about lessons learned or what could be done differently.
  • Devise a game plan to install and recover customer premise equipment at student homes.
  • Set a project timeline and, if possible, hire a project integrator or project management officer.

Model 3: Using 2.5 GHz Licenses to provide Home Access Across a Vast Geographic Area

Imperial County, CA

Program Name: ICOE BorderLink
Infrastructure Initiative

Location: Imperial County, CA

Project Lead: Luis Wong, Chief Technology Officer

The Imperial County Office of Education (ICOE) serves 17 school districts and 37,375 K-12 students in Imperial County, a rural, remote, and economically distressed area of Southern California. Imperial County (population estimate: 181,215; U.S. Census Bureau, 2019) sits on the border with Mexicali, Mexico, and is located 120 miles southeast of San Diego, CA, and 60 miles west of Yuma, AZ. Imperial County spans 4,482 square miles of arid desert with a substantial agricultural-based economy.

The mission of the ICOE is to improve the community’s quality of life by promoting strong families and students who are prepared for life, college, and career.

Recognizing the need to bridge the homework gap to allow students to reach their full academic potential, the ICOE launched an infrastructure initiative that helps ensure equal access to internet services throughout the county. The goal is to ensure that every student has adequate access to the internet, regardless of whether they are at school, home, or elsewhere in the community.


BorderLink Infrastructure Initiative

  • Student Population: 37,375
  • Demographics:
    • – Hispanic/Latino 85%
    • White 10%
    • Black/African American 2%
    • Other 3%
  • Economically Disadvantaged/FRPL: 93%
  • Location: rural
  • Area covered by network: 1,400 mi2
  • Cost to construct: $2,000,000
  • Cost of project staff: 2 FTEs ($150,000/year) during construction phase; transitioning to 1 FTE ($90,000/year) in operational/maintenance mode
  • Cost per square mile: $1,400
  • Number of students served: 3,000, expanding to 15,000
  • Populations served by network: Students; families (student households)

Approach

BorderLink uses an LTE network that operates on 100 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum to provide home access to students.

Two decades ago, ICOE established a state-of-the-industry fiber-optic communications network in Imperial County. Thanks to these efforts, Imperial County teachers and students have enjoyed the educational benefits of having reliable high-speed internet access at school. Relying on this robust backbone and the 2.5 GHz licenses it had available, ICOE decided to use wireless connectivity to expand its terrestrial fiber-optic network outside of the school.

To create an off-campus Wi-Fi network, ICOE adopted a proven consortium model through the Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority (IVTA). The IVTA is a collaborative of all Imperial County school districts, city agencies, county agencies, Imperial Community College, San Diego State University-IVC, and the Imperial Irrigation District. IVTA is an innovative partnership and is officially recognized as a public “Joint Powers Authority (JPA)”. It includes 31 agencies and 115 sites that are connected, mostly via private and licensed microwave systems.

This consortium model provides several key benefits:

  • It provides the ability to connect all communities.
  • It leverages the ICOE network staff, which offers expertise and cost-efficiently utilizes 2-3 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) to support the network.
  • It leverages community assets, such as poles, communication towers, and power-protected facilities.
  • It offers economies of scale and a consortium cost recovery model that yields low costs per connection.

Technology Used

Exhibit 3 provides an overview of Imperial County, CA’s LTE topography map.
Exhibit 3 provides an overview of Imperial County, CA’s LTE topography map.

The LTE network, named BorderLink, consists of 14 towers providing more than 1,400 square miles of coverage throughout Imperial County. Each tower is connected via a 1 gigabit fiber-optic connection fed by a 10-gigabit backbone that is also owned, operated, and maintained by IVTA. The IVTA utilizes member agency owned vertical assets such as gymnasiums, radio towers, and buildings with pre-existing connections to reduce deployment costs. The LTE network operates on 80 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum, which is licensed to IVTA member agencies. With this infrastructure, ICOE can fulfill its mission of providing exemplary support and leadership in technology to schools, districts, and the community, all of which are critical to student success.

There are several modalities for students and families to connect to this LTE network:

  • Mi-Fi devices. A Mi-Fi device that provides a connection for up to five devices.
  • LTE enabled equipment. Equipment that has a built-in LTE capable modem, such as the newest tablets.
  • Indoor modems. An indoor modem that connects to the LTE network, which then provides Wi-Fi in the residence.
  • Outdoor LTE antennas. For residences that are farthest from the antenna, an outdoor LTE antenna can be placed outside the home to provide the signal. This outdoor unit can also be used to provide connectivity to multi-residence complexes (e.g., high-density, low-income housing units) since they offer more data throughput capacity and can serve more students and families.

Funding and Partnerships

IVTA/ICOE built the Borderlink LTE network using local funds and federal grants. No federal or state subsidies (such as E-Rate) were used. The BorderLink project launched its first pilot in 2017–18 with the installation of six antenna systems. In August 2018, IVTA/ICOE received a series of USDA Community Facilities Grants totaling $840,000 to expand BorderLink’s reach to include eight additional antennas to cover the most remote rural communities.5 In October 2020, ICOE was awarded $1 million under the USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program to provide devices to students in 22 school sites.6 Recently, school districts in Imperial County supported the expansion using federal support from ESSER and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds (GEER) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ICOE was able to leverage strategic partnerships, share technical expertise, and achieve economies of scale, which have been instrumental in successfully deploying the BorderLink infrastructure. Partners allowed ICOE to gain access to multiple vertical assets (tall buildings, towers, etc.), allowing ICOE to place antennas in strategic locations and use existing tall structures to provide coverage, at no extra cost to ICOE. ICOE was also able to take advantage of economies of scale.

Challenges

The BorderLink project faced several challenges, including setting a shared vision, identifying funding, access to spectrum, finding adequate network resources, and securing technical expertise to manage and deploy the network.

  • Develop the Vision. With a variety of stakeholders, it was important to develop a shared vision to ensure that each stakeholder group supported the work. They funded a small pilot project to solidify their vision for the BorderLink project and articulate the benefits to the community.
  • Connect All Students. The Geographical Service Area (GSA) of incumbent 2.5 GHz licenses is limited to a 35-mile radius and it does not cover some of the most remote communities in Imperial County. While new 2.5 GHz licenses will be issued on a county basis, the Commission has eliminated the educational eligibility requirements on 2.5 GHz licenses, and new licenses will be awarded through competitive bidding. ICOE is actively looking for solutions to connect these communities. They have been working with different partners and commercial ISPs to coordinate use and spectrum. ICOE is exploring using the CBRS which operates at the 3.6 GHz frequency. 
  • Acquire Equipment. ICOE found it challenging to acquire equipment during the pandemic. Planning is the key to sourcing materials and equipment, which often requires three to four months of lead time.

Successes

BorderLink successfully deployed its infrastructure, implemented its pilot initiative, and was built on successful partnerships with schools and the community to ensure that all students have adequate internet connectivity at home and access to the digital tools they need to thrive academically. It attributes its success to stakeholders’ laser-focused vision, leadership and strategic partner support, ideal market conditions, and a knowledgeable IT team capable of deploying and managing the network infrastructure.

Outcomes and Impact

In March 2020, and again at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Imperial County schools transitioned to remote learning as a result of the pandemic. During each transition, the district offered assistance to families who did not have devices or internet connectivity at home. BorderLink is playing a critical role in ensuring that learning continues relatively uninterrupted during school closures. The small BorderLink pilots implemented in the spring and fall of 2019 were essential to local schools’ ability to quickly deploy hundreds of devices. The BorderLink system saw a 100 percent increase in use within 2 weeks after the California stay-at-home order went into effect and 10 times growth at the start of the new school year. The BorderLink team prepared and deployed more than 1,000 Mi-Fi devices to the students lacking sufficient internet connectivity at home. In total, the BorderLink program deployed 2,000 devices and has 14 towers strategically located across Imperial County.

Next Steps

ICOE needs additional resources to enhance the BorderLink infrastructure and ensure IVTA meets the increasing demand placed on the network, as well as eliminate coverage gaps in some parts of the community. A dramatic increase in data traffic will put a strain on the network. As a result, ICOE is looking to increase the network’s capacity as IVTA continues to serve a growing number of users during the pandemic and beyond. IVTA is working with community stakeholders to plan next-generation upgrades in preparation for 5G networks to serve Imperial County.

Implementation Advice from Imperial County

  • Secure spectrum, either 2.5 GHz spectrum or CBRS, or partner with the agency that holds 2.5 GHz or CBRS licenses in your area. To see the 2.5 GHz Licenses available, click on the following link: https://wireless2.fcc.gov/UlsApp/UlsSearch/searchAdvanced.jsp. After clicking the link, select “ED- Educational Broadcast Service” in the service group drop-down box. Note that existing licensees may have leased their spectrum to third parties which may limit availability of the 2.5 GHz spectrum.  As noted above, new 2.5 GHz licenses will be issued via competitive bidding.
  • Cultivate partnerships. Local partnerships are critical throughout this process. Working relationships with county and city officials, as well as all the agencies involved in the process, will allow a smooth implementation. The right partners can help coordinate resources and assets, including properties, vertical assets, communication, and power. It is also important to include your partners in discussions about future growth.
  • At the beginning of the project, build your infrastructure using equipment that can handle high density. It is more cost-effective to add maximum capacity to the antennas at the outset of the project, rather than go back later and add capacity.
  • Reach out to districts or other agencies that have similar implementations in place and visit as many sites managing similar initiatives as possible.

Model 4: Harnessing Multiple Solutions to Bring Access to Students & Families

Lindsay, CA

Program Name: LUSD Community Wi-Fi Network

Location: Lindsay Unified School District, California

Project Lead: Peter Sonksen, Network Administrator

Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) ensures 24/7 internet access to online curriculum to all students/learners in an underserved rural community in central California. Through both a cellular-based service and a traditional wireless broadband solution, systems are in place to support learning.

Ensuring internet access for students has been a major priority for the district since 2007, when it worked with the community to develop a strategic design that called for 24/7 access to learning for all LUSD students.

Approach

LUSD uses multiple approaches to deliver internet access, including Mi-Fi units for its LTE network and an Unlicensed 5 GHz Spectrum. The district is also exploring the CBRS spectrum.

Before beginning this project, LUSD provided devices to students to access online curriculum and online instruction. However, as many as 60 percent of student homes had no internet service. LUSD discovered that many homes have only one internet service subscription option and, in many cases, that option could not reach internet speeds beyond ~1.5 Mbps. LUSD’s goal is to provide high-speed broadband (15-25 Mbps) at no cost to ensure access to high-quality instructional materials.


LUSD Community Wi-Fi Network

  • Student Population: 4,200
  • Demographics:
    • – Hispanic/Latino 94%
    • White 3.5%
    • Asian 1.5%
    • Other 3%
  • Economically Disadvantaged/FRPL: 89%
  • Location: rural
  • Area covered by network: 25 mi2
  • Cost to construct: $700,000
  • Cost of project staff: 1 dedicated field technician; 2 FTE with other campus roles (primary network administrator and clerical/receptionist
  • Cost per square mile: $28,000
  • Number of students served: 3,000
  • Populations served by network: Students, households with and without students at home and in public areas such as parks, community centers, etc.

The Wi-Fi project has been implemented entirely by the district. After researching services provided by existing telecommunication providers, the district determined that it could deliver faster, more cost-effective services. LUSD stopped its attempts to partner with utility providers to access their poles and lights once it became clear there was not enough money to proceed. LUSD opted for a lower-cost option: providing individual Mi-Fi units for the LTE network and conducting physical residential installations for the highest performing CPE.

Technology Used

Exhibit 4 provides an overview of Lindsay, CA’s community LTE topography map.
Exhibit 4 provides an overview of Lindsay, CA’s community LTE topography map.

LUSD’s Community Wi-Fi network consists of two wireless technologies, with a third technology in development. Internet infrastructure consists of a 4-gigabit internet line and connectivity to support 1 gigabit for Community Wi-Fi. CIPA-compliant filtering costs are supported by LUSD and provided for Community Wi-Fi.

  • LTE. LUSD has three LTE towers consisting of three cells for each tower running 15 MHz bands servicing max capabilities of 60-70 Mbps per cell. The LTE access points connect in many cases to a local controller. This controller connects to another controller owned and operated by an organization (or shared between many) and is often referred to as a core. LUSD hosts its own core but is planning to integrate with a core that is being purchased by the county.
  • Unlicensed 5 GHz Point-to-Point Spectrum. LUSD has nine towers with 50+ sectors using traditional unlicensed 5 GHz spectrum. These towers reside on LUSD school property, city/public property, and other select businesses that have tall buildings. These sectors support, on average, about 30-40 homes per sector. LUSD provides a field service technician to support occasional repair needs. While this technology offers the highest potential bandwidth, it covers a much smaller area per sector compared to LTE. It is also more susceptible to interference and overall system degradation due to spectrum rule changes and increased public & residential use over time.
  • CBRS – In development. LUSD is building out a CBRS network to position microcells to cover densely populated areas that cannot be reached with 5 GHz installations or enough LTE density to support bandwidth needs. This technology provides a greater coverage area than 5 GHz, but it offers lower potential bandwidth capabilities. CBRS provides greater potential bandwidth than LTE, but with a smaller coverage area.

Funding and Partnerships

LUSD uses general funds to build and maintain these networks. LTE, 5 GHz, and CBRS technologies and equipment have been funded entirely by general funds. Federal grants such as Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program, the former Race to the Top District program, and others have provided additional sources of staff funding, which has allowed LUSD to free up other funding sources for the off-campus student internet network.

A partnership between LUSD and the City of Lindsay has made it possible to access ideal tower locations. LUSD also contracts with third parties to take on liability and perform the initial installation of physical residential installations.

Challenges

  • Equipment Access. The biggest challenge regarding LTE & CBRS is the availability of equipment that supports the EBS and CBRS bands. LTE equipment manufacturers heavily cater to major cellular providers. As a result, it can be difficult for schools to find compatible CPE devices or infrastructure pieces to support these technologies. It is also costly and difficult to predict district needs to purchase bulk supplies. LUSD has worked with other school districts to find alternative solutions as equipment nears the end of life.
  • Legal Hurdles. LUSD worked with its lawyers and County Council to determine legal liabilities of access and implementing systems. These liabilities included potential residential damage due to CPE installation and employee safety that needed to be addressed.
  • Connectivity and Installation Process. LUSD has thoroughly vetted all sign-up forms used by families to apply for internet access, as well as processes for how those installations are handled. These forms and processes are now publicly available on the LUSD website.7

Successes

During COVID-19 facility closure, LUSD was able to ensure continuity of learning. Students were able to continue learning and communicate with their teachers and other district health services during facility closures. While core learning target completion has slowed in the current remote learning format, there are still meaningful gains and completion of targets in all grade-levels and content areas.

Outcomes and Impact

Since LUSD has proven itself a superior internet provider to underperforming DSL or other wireless ISPs in the area, many families have opted-in to LUSD’s no-cost service. LUSD saves its community more than $700,000 per year by providing faster service than other options. It also continues to update and improve its services over time.

Next Steps

LUSD is working to help coordinate all central California school districts to build a massive learning network for all California Central Valley learners. Eventually it may be possible to create a California-wide educational network to support home access for students in Northern and Southern California.

Implementation Advice from Lindsay Unified

  • Know the minimum bandwidth necessary for your students and teachers to use and access educational resources. This can help you balance how and where your students receive service.
  • Be sure to have tech-support hotlines in place for families to call when they are experiencing connectivity issues and be mindful of families’ primary home languages in your area.
  • When considering implementing a wireless solution of any type, never assume you will achieve theoretical maximum capabilities (e.g., throughput) of that network. Recognize that every solution has limitations.
  • Familiarize yourself with the coverage capabilities of the types of technology you are considering—5 GHz and CBRS are great solutions in rural areas but are often more challenging to implement in urban/developed areas. Test and confirm real-world service capabilities of any solution you are considering.
  • Be realistic in what you are looking to accomplish.

Model 5: Building Public-Private Partnerships to Connect Low-Income Students at No Cost

Boulder, CO

Program Name: Livewire ConnectME Program

Location: Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), Colorado

Project Lead: Andrew Moore, Chief Information Officer

BVSD serves both the city and suburban communities of Boulder, CO. It includes 56 schools located in 11 communities. BVSD has a FRPL population of 20 percent; however, some schools exceed 65 percent. Secondary schools use a 1:1 Chromebook-enabled learning model. Elementary schools use cart-based Chromebooks as needed throughout the day.

“Excellence and Equity” is BVSD’s motto. This motto guides decision making to ensure all students have an equitable opportunity to learn.

The Boulder Valley School District’s mission is to create challenging, meaningful, and engaging learning opportunities so that all children thrive and are prepared for successful, civically engaged lives.

Approach

BVSD established a public/private partnership with Livewire Networks (Livewire) called ConnectME (My Education). BVSD provides real estate (schools), power, and access to dark fiber-optic lines in exchange for free internet services to all FRPL qualifying students and their families. BVSD also receives 25 percent of Livewire’s revenue generated from any necessary equipment installed on any BVSD site. If Livewire sells its service to the non-FRPL school community in which they have installed equipment, BVSD receives 25 percent of that revenue.


ConnectME

  • Student Population: 31,169
  • Demographics:
    • White 68%
    • Hispanic/Latino 19%
    • Asian 6%
    • African American 1%
    • Other 6%
  • Economically Disadvantaged/FRPL: 20%
  • Location: urban, rural, suburban
  • Area covered by network: 500 mi2
  • Cost to construct: $0 for BVSD
  • Cost of project staff: .5 FTE
  • Cost per square mile: N/A
  • Number of students served: 300 expanding to 750-1,000 students
  • Populations served by network: Students, families (student households)

In the early 2010s, BVSD offered internet access from its nearby fiber network to a neighboring public housing community, only to learn the E-Rate funded service could not be used outside of traditional brick and mortar schools. BVSD submitted an FCC Waiver8 request for permission to continue carrying out the project. Although the request was released for public comment in 2016, the FCC has yet to issue a ruling. This has forced BVSD to search for other ways to get internet access to all qualifying students in need. BVSD’s initial goals were to identify an over-the-air/wireless service provider and test the feasibility of exchanging access to district-owned real-estate for the free internet service to qualifying low-income students. The 2.5-year pilot began in 2017. In April 2020, the board of education approved a contract to expand the technology district-wide.

This approach was developed to ensure all students had an equitable opportunity to learn when the existing telecommunications companies either did not have a low-cost internet option available or requirements for participation in the low-cost option proved to be barriers for some families. The limitations of the E-Rate Program further restricted BVSD’s ability to address the issue alone and pushed the district to identify a novel approach that would benefit both BVSD and private internet service providers.

Technology Used

Exhibit 5 provides an overview of Boulder Valley, CO’s LTE topography map.
Exhibit 5 provides an overview of Boulder Valley, CO’s LTE topography map.

Livewire Assets

  • All school-based transmitting/receiving equipment, including antennas.
  • All student home-based equipment, including wireless routers.

 BVSD Assets

  • Backhaul using a single strand of BVSD bond-funded dark fiber-optic line per school that was not funded with E-Rate support.
  • Homerun (dedicated line) of the dark fiber-optic line Livewire uses to a central facility where non-school internet access can be obtained.

Funding and Partnerships

The 100-mile BVSD fiber-optic line that serves as the backbone of the network was paid for by BVSD taxpayers in a 2007 voter-approved bond. This line is a critical asset that was necessary for facilitating the Livewire partnership. If the fiber-optic line had been funded using E-Rate funds, BVSD would have faced restrictions that would prevent it from using the network to connect students off-campus. Livewire covers all other costs, including the connection costs for FRPL-qualified students.

Finding and establishing the partnership with Livewire over the pilot period was critical to signing the 10-year agreement. The partnership would not have happened without a win-win partnership mentality from both BVSD and Livewire built on trust established during the pilot. The pilot phase allowed BVSD and Livewire to work together through technical and political challenges to develop the agreement.

Challenges

  • E-Rate Restrictions. BVSD’s main challenge was navigating E-Rate rules that restricted the district from extending internet off-campus to the homes of students in need. These restrictions remain a hurdle for many districts, but BVSD found a way to be E-Rate compliant through its partnership with Livewire.
  • Parent Concerns. BVSD also ran into a period of parent concern on the use of technology, which delayed the development and signing of the contract for about a year. BVSD alleviated parent concerns by purchasing and deploying a web filtering and classroom monitoring solution. The solution provides web filtering away from school on any student device on a Chrome browser and logged in with their student ID. It also allows teachers to “see” what students are working on and allows teachers to restrict what tabs/sites are open.

Successes

Success is directly measured by how many students have been successfully connected through the ConnectME program. This number has increased 25 percent since the contract was signed in April of 2020.

Outcomes and Impact

The goal of this project is to allow any student who otherwise would not have had internet access at home to have the same opportunities as other students who have in-home internet connectivity. A student lacking internet access at home must go to the library or other commercial place with free Wi-Fi to do homework. A student with home broadband simply needs to log on. During the pandemic, all students need in-home internet access to participate in synchronous remote learning environments and receive an equitable learning experience.

Next Steps

BVSD will continue working with Livewire to find ways to speed the deployment to all BVSD schools. The agreement allows 3 years for full buildout. BVSD is looking for ways to extend the agreement.

Implementation Advice from Boulder Valley

  • Districts should be aware of and carefully consider the E-Rate funding restrictions when they consider building new networks. E-rate-funded fiber-optic lines include restrictions that limit flexibility for providing off-campus access for students and permit revenue generating agreements.
  • Do not be shy to try different approaches, especially around the different spectrums.
  • Have patience—it will take time.
  • Know there are others who can help if you run into problems. Connect with other district leaders through organizations like the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (shlb.org) and CoSN (Consortium for School Networking online at cosn.org).

Model 6: Leveraging Partnerships to Bring Fiber Optics and Private LTE to Underserved Students

Fresno, CA

Program Name: Connect2Learn

Location: Fresno Unified School District, California

Project Lead: Dr. Philip Neufeld, Executive Officer, Information Technology

Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) in Fresno, CA, has more than 70,000 students, 4,000 teachers, and 90 schools. FUSD prepares students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to navigate a dynamic, interconnected, technology-infused world. FUSD believes that the intentional use of technology in teaching engages students, enables adaptive and inclusive learning experiences, and cultivates modern skill competencies. FUSD students are economically challenged with high poverty levels and have an ethnically diverse population in which students speak nearly 100 languages.

FUSD’s Personalized Learning Initiative (PLI) demonstrates that students who are provided with personalized, blended learning perform better on state assessments, are more engaged, and become better prepared for their futures.

Implementation of the Fresno PLI over the past several years and the subsequent use of hybrid learning in response to COVID-19 have revealed a strong need for long-term off-campus digital access for all students.


Connect2Learn

  • Student Population: 74,000
  • Demographics:
    • Hispanic/Latino 68%
    • Asian 11%
    • White 9%
    • Black/African American 8%
    • Other 4%
  • Economically Disadvantaged/FRPL: 88.3%
  • Location: urban
  • Area covered by network: 20 mi2
  • Cost to construct: $1,400,000
  • Cost of ongoing maintenance: $150,000
  • Cost of project staff: 2 FTE
  • Cost per square mile: $70,000
  • Population served by network: 6,000+ concurrent students; connections covering region with 18,000 students

Approach

During the past 12 months, FUSD increased students’ access to mobile hotspots and families’ adoption of broadband, built-out fiber-optic infrastructure, and consulted with the California Public Utilities Commission and local providers. FUSD also considered technologies, such as EBS and CBRS, and strategies, such as deploying LTE networks, that would reduce deficiencies in internet access, especially among underserved students.

FUSD listened to students, families and educators during remote school sessions and learned about variations in the quality and capacity of neighborhood networks. They found that mobile hotspots occasionally left students disconnected from class meetings when their local cellular service was inadequate or when they exceeded monthly data usage limits. Cellular carriers also have far fewer cell towers in poorer neighborhoods, which results in inferior internet service. Many families cannot afford cable broadband subscription services and families that did have cable broadband services found that these services had insufficient bandwidth when families needed to share the network for learning and working.

Based on this research and the listening sessions, FUSD developed a multi-layered approach to advocate for more affordable broadband, collaborate with anchor institutions to improve fiber infrastructure and broadband adoption, and provide internet access to students who need it. FUSD awarded a request for proposal (RFP) to deploy private LTE services for students in serviceable areas around schools in the southern region of Fresno. FUSD chose to leverage its fiber-optic backhaul and school buildings as platforms to deploy a private LTE CBRS service to deliver internet to students. Phase I included LTE at 15 school-facilities-as-towers covering about 20 square miles and supporting 6500+ concurrent student connections in an area with approximately 18,000 students.

Technology Used

Exhibit 6 provides an overview of Fresno, CA’s topography map.
Exhibit 6 provides an overview of Fresno, CA’s topography map.

The district leveraged existing fiber backhaul, including the district’s wide area network that connects more than 111 sites to the district headquarters, as well as two internet fiber paths that connect the district headquarters to CENIC’s California Research and Education Network (CalREN). The district’s wide area network includes switched ethernet circuits and a leased fiber ring. FUSD used district facilities at 15 schools as elevated platforms to reduce permitting requirements and time to deployment of LTE radios/antennas. The LTE radios transmit to CPE using hotspots.


An ethernet circuit is high-speed ethernet bandwidth of 1 Mbps to 10 Gbps delivered as Ethernet over fiber, Ethernet over DS3, Ethernet over T1, or Ethernet over copper phone lines. Ethernet Internet access is also known as an Ethernet Circuit, Ethernet Line, or Ethernet Access.

Funding and Partnerships

FUSD is using CARES Act funding to build the network and general funds for ongoing operations and maintenance. FUSD is partnering with anchor institutions and seeking additional funding to further the reach of the LTE network.

Challenges and Successes

The criterion for success is that all students have basic internet access sufficient to the speed requirement for the district’s standard learning platforms. This requires addressing each of the following layers: providing more fiber-optic in underserved areas, offering more connections to community centers and apartment complexes, providing more available, affordable broadband for student internet service, and creating LTE that reaches beyond the campus. FUSD faces many challenges, including:

  • Lower adoption of broadband cable in underserved
  • Inadequate cellular data service in underserved
  • Hotspots limited in data use with costs that are not financially sustainable by district.
  • Unavailable access to licensed spectrum. Because the 2.5 GHz spectrum in Fresno is licensed to commercial carriers, FUSD is using CBRS’ General Authorized Access (GAA) level.

To address the challenges above, the district is in conversations with broadband providers and cellular carriers to find ways to improve service to these target areas. It is also leading community conversations about how to hold these carriers accountable to deliver equitable internet access to students.

Outcomes and Impact

Improvements to the district’s Wi-Fi, wide area network (WAN), and internet over the past 5 years were the necessary conditions for substantial improvements in teaching and learning. Following school re-openings, the off-campus digital learning gap will be amplified unless students have access to reliable, affordable, high-performance internet access at community centers and within housing units. Improvements to the digital ecosystem—including more fiber-optic infrastructure, better broadband for student internet access, and internet around the campus using LTE—will support rich, relevant learning for all students.

Next Steps

Next steps include socializing with families and community-based organizations the options of wireline broadband and private LTE hotspots, rolling out leased fiber WAN, and collaborating with public and private partners to better solve for equitable student access across Fresno.  

Implementation Advice from FUSD

  • Recognize there are multiple challenges requiring a multi-layered approach.
  • Reach out to equipment manufacturers, systems integrators, and other districts to learn what works, what does not work, and to identify sustainable solutions.
  • Consider variations in housing units and patterns of technology adoption when selecting solutions.
  • Find ways to leverage existing assets and partner with public organizations and private entities.

  1. The details for each model were obtained via survey and follow up interviews with the district project lead.
  2. Joint comments submitted on August 18, 2018 by the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), Nebraska Educational Television (NET), and the State of Nebraska Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) to the Federal Communications Commission, on Transforming the 2.5 GHz Band, 23 pgs. Retrieved from https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/108082718222025/FCC-EBS-NPRM_Nebraska_20180808.pdf  
  3. Nebraska Department of Education (2020, June 15). Launch Nebraska: Digital Learning Guidance for Summer Programming and Beyond. Retrieved from: https://www.launchne.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/DigitalLearningGuidanceFinal2020.pdf
  4. In the 2020 legislative session, 43 states and Guam addressed broadband in issue areas such as educational institutions and schools, dig once, funding, governance authorities and commissions, infrastructure, municipal-run broadband networks, rural and underserved communities, smart communities, and taxes. Thirty-one states enacted legislation or adopted resolutions. Morton, Heather. (2020, August 20). Broadband 2020 Legislation. National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/broadband-2020-legislation.aspx#:~:text=Provides%20that%20a%20communications%20service%20provider%2C%20including%20a,public%20rights-of-way%20acquired%20with%20federal%20mass%20transportation%20funds.
  5. Staff Reporter (2018, September 12). BorderLink Project Receives $840K in USDA Grants to Expand Access Across Imperial County. The Desert Review. Retrieved from https://www.thedesertreview.com/education/borderlink-project-receives-840k-in-usda-grants-to-expand-access-across-imperial-county/article_04046c08-b6ba-11e8-a854-671b960f8344.html 
  6. Staff Reporter (2020, October 8). ICOE BorderLink Gets $1M Grant for Devices, Web Access for Imperial County Students. Calexico Chronicle. Retrieved from https://beyondbordersnews.com/borderlink-receives-1-million-usda-grant/
  7. https://lindsay.schoolblocks.com/community-wifi-15816854 – If unavailable, noted documents can otherwise be found on the Technology Page for Community Wi-Fi on the LUSD main website: https://www.lindsay.k12.ca.us
  8. The waiver request can be found at the following URL: https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/60001843683.pdf

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